Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell said last week she intends to sign into law a new set of disclosure regulations for county government, but vowed to work with county lawmakers to make changes to the confidentiality measures that critics deemed too secretive.
Odell, in an interview last week, said she is currently in discussion with the county Legislature about making amendments to the piece of legislation that was passed by county lawmakers earlier this month. Her comments come after a public hearing was held in her conference room last Wednesday where residents could voice their problems with the bill one more time before Odell made a final determination.
The proposal would allow lawmakers, county officials and even consultants to classify documents as confidential to prevent public disclosure. The change to the county code would possibly subject a person to an ethics inquiry or even prosecution if they breach that confidentiality. Communication to and from the county law department, legislative counsel or outside counsel would be marked as confidential and the legislature would unanimously need to vote to release those documents, the new law dictates.
Odell confirmed she would sign the resolution into law, but will also send the legislature recommendations the county law department, county clerk’s office and county residents put forward to improve the law.
During a July 2 meeting, legislators voted 7-1 to pass the legislation. Odell said after hearing from so many residents about the disclosure law, while the intent of the legislation was smart, there is minor tweaking that needs to be done so “it can be a really good bill that reflects concerns of both parties.”
Some opponents of the law claimed it would not hold up to a legal challenge in court because it defied New York State regulations. When asked if it could hold up against a legal challenge, Odell said discussions about that concern never came up between multiple departments.
“Our discussion really centered around the intent of it and why the legislature thought it was important,” Odell said.
Odell said when she was a legislator several years ago, there were many times when information that was discussed in executive session was later conveyed to outside parties inappropriately, which lawmakers are trying to avoid.
Odell said the law needs to be crafted so it’s clear to residents that the legislation is not about secrecy, but meant to protect individuals, circumstances or events and not jeopardize the integrity of county government.
“Privacy is a responsibility of all government officials and privilege and confidential information is just that and when someone does not respect that then there can be big problems,” Odell said. “This piece of legislation—its intent—was to be able to tighten what’s confidential and what could jeopardize public safety.”
At a public hearing before the county executive’s office last week, several residents attended to speak out against the law. Critics of the law had also attended a full meeting at the start of the month to bemoan the new disclosure regulations.
“The proposed legislation is arbitrary and capricious, having no defined criteria for determining the classification of communications as ‘confidential,’ and no criteria for identifying those to whom the power will be extended,” Cold Spring resident Kathleen Foley wrote the county executive’s office last week. “It broadly extends the power to any staff, elected officials and/or consultants. This is an absurd, sweeping provision of discretionary authority that will not withstand challenge. You’re inviting a lawsuit against Putnam County, and once again you are wasting taxpayer money.”